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Physician, Heal Thyself, And Thy Healthcare System

Melanie Greenberg Ph.D.

The Mindful Self-Express

Many mental health disorders carry risks for physical disease.

  • Depression is a risk factor for many serious and life-threatening diseases, including heart disease, addictions, chronic pain, diabetes and obesity

  • Illness diagnosis can result in an anxiety disorder

  • Chronic mental stress can cause muscle pain, fatigue, inflammation, and impaired immunity

  • Stress can result in impaired self-care, such as not eating, exercising, or sleeping properly, increasing risks of disease.

  • Depressed mood can interfere with heart rate variability or the ability of the individual to put the brakes on and stop anxiety-related physiological arousal from spiraling out of control.

  • PTSD has been linked to addictions, smoking, heart disease and autoimmune diseases.

Many chronic medical illnesses result in anxiety, depression and other mental health problems.

  • Some of the stresses of illness are:

  • The shock of illness diagnosis,Inability to find a diagnosis despite numerous tests and specialist visits

  • Having to restrict what you eat or what you do, Uncertainty about the outcome and fear of worsening symptoms & disability

  • Uncomfortable and painful symptoms and medical treatments,

  • Financial stress 

  • Frustration with the medical system and lack of adequate insurance coverage

  • Illness-related stigma and lack of understanding by family, friends, co-workers or health-care professionals.

An Integrative Medicie Model

Given this close connection between mental and physical health conditions, do we need to rethink the way we treat these conditions in the current healthcare system? An Integrative Medicine approach is an alternative that is based on a holistic model of health and illness. In a holistic model, health care practitioners from different subspecialties collaborate in the care of a patient. Alternative medicine may be included as well if research supports its effectiveness, or it has been known to help similar patients and the patient desires it. This model suggests an expanded role for mental health practitioners in treating psychological aspects of medical illnesses as well as traditional mental health problems. Chronic pain is a great example of a disorder that is best treated by a multidisciplinary approach in which mental health practitioners, physicians, and physical therapists collaborate to care for an individual patient. Triage systems need to be in place in primary care to direct vulnerable patients quickly to preventive pain and depression treatment.

Barriers to Integration

Unfortunately, consistent with our fragmented health system, most mental health practitioners have not been trained in mind-body conceptualizations or treatments. Doctors have not been trained to assess for mental health problems nor treat these as real diseases. Physicians often get less than one day of specialized pain treatment training at medical school. Furthermore, mental health issues are treated as less important that physical health complaints in the current system. This is because physicians are not trained to see the link between depression and life-threatening diseases. Alternative medicine practitioners are typically not trained as researchers, which gets in the way of collecting data with hard outcomes such as cost-savings or mortality.

The Role of Social Media

Physician Presence on Social Media is Increasing

Source:The internet is revolutionizing healthcare by empowering and informing patients.It is also allowing for more communication and knowledge-sharing between medical specialties and between medical and mental/behavioral health experts. Social media also represents a unique opportunity for empowered patient voices to be heard  It is my hope that social media and internet use in healthcare will result in more credible alternative voices being heard, ultimately resulting in a more open and integrated system of care. What is needed are visionary and persuasive leaders in the healthcare industry and health leaders with large social media followings to spearhead this change. Patients and therapists can climb on board and spread the word in their Facebook pages, groups, and social media forums. I personally challenge entrepreneurs, prominent physicians, and healthcare organization leaders to expand their thinking and adopt new integrative medicine models that will ultimately result in cost-reductions, more seamless, efficient, and effective care, and more satisfied patients. Under this system, wasteful duplication of effort between specialties would be eliminated, interdisciplinary communication would be improved, and, if the cost-saving is fairly distributed, both practitioners and patients should see improved quality of life. 

Melanie Greenberg PhD is a Clinical Health Psychologist with a private practice in Marin County, CA. She specializes in helping individuals deal with life stress due to chronic illness, role demands, traumas and major life transitions. She is also available for workshops and speaking engagements. To find out more about my clinical practice, background, and scientific publications, visit my website at For more articles, check out my blog

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